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The Value of Self-Acceptance

by Robert G. Waldvogel

Self-acceptance is the full and unconditional acceptance of yourself, including the proverbial “good, bad, and ugly” aspects. It is not a selective, pick-and-choose process.

Comparatively, if you assemble a jigsaw puzzle and only use the blue and red pieces you like while discarding the colors you do not, the resultant picture will contain numerous holes and be incomplete.

Self-acceptance does not imply that, like a series of less than desirable colors, that you “like” all your parts. Instead, it strives to complete your picture, as is, without judgment or elimination, and if there are parts or areas you wish you did not have, the process can serve as the threshold to changing them.

Self-acceptance may become an easier endeavor when you realize that what you are is different from what you do or have done.

“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect,” according to therapist Russel Grieger. “You will often perform well, but you will also err at times…”

Many erroneously equate self-acceptance with self-esteem, and the greater the latter, the easier it is to do the former. But they are not the same.

“Whereas self-esteem refers specifically to how valuable or how worthwhile we see ourselves, self-acceptance alludes to a far greater global affirmation of self,” according to Dr. Leon F. Seltzer in his “Path of Unconditional Self-Acceptance” article (Internet, September 10, 2008). “When we’re self-accepting, we’re able to embrace all facets of ourselves—not just the positive, more ‘esteem’-able’ parts. As such, self-acceptance is unconditional, free of any qualification.”

That doing so is both difficult and virtually universal stems from the fact that many erect psychological defenses—or walls that separate them from the parts that they would rather not have. But doing so only creates that incomplete jigsaw puzzle and closes off, as opposed to opens up, the path to potential improvement and their elimination.

Why so many struggle with this phenomenon is often the result of their upbringings, during which the seed of conditional acceptance is planted.

While parents should theoretically accept and unconditionally love a child for what he is—a creation of and therefore gift from—God, instruction and discipline usually create a conditionally acceptable state, which the person misinterprets and continues to use throughout his life. Instead of being accepted for what he is, acceptance—or lack of it—hinges upon what he does.

“…As children, we’re able to accept ourselves only to the degree that we feel accepted by our parents,” according to Seltzer (ibid). “Research has demonstrated that before the age of eight, we lack the ability to formulate a clear, separate sense of self, other than that which has been transmitted to us by our caretakers.”

Comments such as “You did your homework—good boy” and “You didn’t clean your room—bad girl” --establish conditional acceptance standards in which one depends upon the other. And what may increase this acceptance hinges upon the fact that primary caregivers may be more prone to pointing out wrongs than rights in what they may believe is instructional, correcting, and sometimes even disciplining.

In their extreme, these strategies can begin as lack of acceptance and end as rejection, especially if they are frequent and not often counteracted with positives, leading to painfully internalized feelings of inadequacy which the person finds it difficult to shed later in life without help. He may only be able to achieve relief by closing them off through defenses.

For those who grow up with particularly wounded parents or those enslaved to addictions, the necessary approval that builds a positive—and therefore accepting--sense of self may be very limited. Because the child is unable to understand his parents’ own deficiencies, he concludes that their restricted or restrained acceptance of him is the result of his own inadequacies and he learns to view himself as their reflection of him.

Conditional acceptance, which may become deeply entrenched in the person’s psyche, only continues in adulthood, where status, achievement, performance, and wealth become measures of who he is instead of what he does.

It can only be wondered how many perform flawlessly on their jobs for years and never receive praise or validation from their superiors, but the moment they make a mistake, they are immediately reprimanded for it.

This praise-deficit becomes the continuation of the one the person experienced in childhood and will reignite his lack of self-acceptance for it in what can only—and perhaps subconsciously—be another, “You didn’t clean your room—bad girl” rejection message.

This only cements the self-and other-acceptance conundrum based upon performance or lack of it.

Entering adulthood with this erroneous, conditional acceptance concept and only having it reinforced during it requires a perspective shift—namely, self-acceptance begins with human condition-acceptance.

No one is or can be in a state of perfection in physical form, despite Herculean efforts to the contrary.

“To become more self-accepting, we must start by telling ourselves that, given all of our negatively-biased, self-referencing beliefs, we’ve done the best we possible could,” Seltzer emphasizes (ibid).

More importantly, this perspective shift entails discarding the distortion that what you are is determined by what you do.

Nevertheless, the self-acceptance process can serve as a springboard to the jigsaw puzzle pieces you would prefer not to include in your “complete picture.”

“To begin working on yourself, the first step is not just self-acceptance, but unconditional self-acceptance,” advises Courtney E. Ackerman in her article “What is Self-Acceptance” (PositivePyschology.com, July 12, 2018). “It’s relatively easy to accept ourselves when we just did something great—won an award, fell in love, or started a fantastic new job—but accepting ourselves at our lowest and with our faults and flaws in stark relief is the real mark of unconditional self-acceptance.”

In other words, this is what I am in whole, not in part, and what can I do to improve it?

This may require both increased self-compassion and self-forgiveness. Although what you have done is not who you are, you can learn from it by avoiding it in the future, with the intention of self-improvement, and forgiving yourself for your less-than-perfect state. “Do-overs” are not possible, but “not-repeats” are.

Other self-accepting strategies include learning the difference between self-and other-acceptance,; avoiding temptations to demonstrate your worth to them to achieve it; minimizing self-criticism and judgment; realizing that you did the best you could based upon the internal resources, understanding, and strengths you had in the past, but can learn from these experiences in the present; and, finally, understanding that you share the same struggles with everyone else in the world.

“Today I will try not to condemn parts of myself while accepting others,” according to an Al-Anon member share in its Courage to Change text (Al-Anon Family Group Headquarters, Inc, 1992, p. 54). “I am a composite and I love myself best when I embrace all that I am.”

Acknowledging and accepting all of you, while the first step toward potential improvement, is, in the end, the equivalent of acknowledging and accepting that you are on a path to something greater, but that that path is not inherently paved with perfection itself.

Robert G. Waldvogel has earned the Interdisciplinary Certificate in Behavioral Health for Late Adolescence and the Emerging Adult and a Postgraduate Certificate in the Fundamentals of Cognitive Behavioral Treatment at Adelphi University’s School of Social Work. He has led Twelve-Step support groups on Long Island for the past decade, and created the Adult Child Recovery-through-Writing, and the Strengthening Our Spirituality Programs taught at the Thrive Recovery Community and Outreach Center in Westbury. He is a frequent contributor to Wisdom Magazine.

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